Things have hardly gone the way anyone in or around the Notre Dame football program thought they would go this season. Not by a long stretch.
The team that just missed out on a College Football Playoff spot last season had every expectation to be in the running for one of the four coveted spots this season. It hasn’t worked out that way.
When things went awry early after losing two of his first three games to Texas and Michigan State, head coach Brian Kelly publicly defended his defensive coordinator, but called out his quarterback and his team for not playing with enough passion and enthusiasm. He said it was “like pulling teeth” to get his players to play with a little spunk.
The defensive coordinator became the first official fall guy for the dismal 2016 season when Kelly fired Brian VanGorder after Notre Dame’s 38-35 loss to Duke. His team was yielding 33.5 points a game at the time, and VanGorder was the logical choice to leave the field on his shield.
Now at the halfway point of the season, things have gotten only marginally better for the Irish (2-4) as they prepare to face Stanford (3-2) this weekend. A 50-33 win over Syracuse still involved too many points for the opponent, and last week’s 10-3 loss at N.C. State, while played in horrible weather conditions, still brought questions about the game plan (too much passing, not enough running) and Kelly’s temperament.
The temperament issue has hounded Kelly since he arrived at Notre Dame. It was apparent early that Kelly, now in his seventh season with the Irish, had a penchant for barking his displeasure on the sideline when things went wrong.
Kelly has contained himself more on the sidelines during games in recent years, but a sub-.500 first half of the season has brought more of the more demonstrative side of him that’s hard to hide from TV cameras on game day.
“I’m just coaching,” Kelly began when asked this week if his sideline demeanor is different now than it was four years ago. “I’m being Brian Kelly. If people have a problem with that, then they’re not going to be friends or fans of Notre Dame football.”
Kelly’s most recent flare-up was caught by ESPN’s cameras near the end of last week’s loss to the Wolfpack. Center Sam Mustipher had just snapped the ball early to quarterback DeShone Kizer. The ball went skidding across the mud- and rain-drenched field on Notre Dame’s last offensive play of the game.
Pan to the sideline afterward: There was Kelly giving Mustipher — who had about a half-dozen such misfires during the water-logged game — an earful as the rain fell and Notre Dame’s shot at getting back to .500 was denied.
Kelly is hardly the first coach to yell at a player. It’s football. High testosterone and high emotion — the kind Kelly has been begging for from his team — flow furiously at any given moment.
The same fans who yell at their TV screens and in stadiums for three-plus hours every Saturday and flex their Twitter muscles with their jabs at their own team’s players and coaches are the same ones whose own shots of testosterone beg their teams to smash opposing players into oblivion while spewing more venom at the opposing coach.
Kelly’s sideline demeanor is now only a deflection from the real problem — which is a football team that’s trying to get better before it gets even worse.
“I’m handling the situation as it hits me,” Kelly said Tuesday.
Things could hit him even harder, considering the six remaining opponents on the Irish schedule have a combined 21-8 record.
The cameras will be there to catch it.